If Family Instinct sometimes plays like a Harmony Korine fiction, Michael Marczak’s At the Edge of Russia feels, in its early going, much like the work of a contemporary Romanian director. In it, a newly minted soldier lands at his first outpost, a border patrol somewhere on the northern edge of Siberia, and wanders through person-high snow to the shack he and a handful of much-older men call a base. Marczak takes his time to set the film up as a gentle hazing ritual/coming-of-age story. The soldier, 19-year-old Alexei, enters quiet and subdued but subtly cocksure, smirking when he’s given orders to dump the company’s human waste in a hole or being told how to organize his gear or properly wrap his feet in felt to avoid frostbite.
A lot of the film is procedural: There’s much suiting up, cooking, daunting shoveling tasks, and events like the (point!) hacking up of a deer carcass for future meals. Snow is cut through with shovels, hacksaws, and chainsaws. But as Alexei slowly begins to ingratiate himself with his grizzled fellow soldiers (particularly after he spends two nights in a carved hole in the snow, probably an indoctrination ritual), his elders become kinder and more sentimental, swapping stories and sex jokes and playing Russian folk songs. One of these men, who has been on the base for 15 years and is reluctant to return to his family, later becomes the focus and unlikely soul of the film, a mirror of Siberia’s harshness and allure. He begins the film bemoaning the base’s lack of spoons, and ends it with music and nostalgic merriment. Marczak, like Andris Gauja, captures the action on a high-definition camera; the horizon between his endless but detailed snowscapes and the day’s sunlight is barely visible. From inside the soldiers’ musty shack, the view out the window is pure, blinding white.
Marczak keeps a leisurely pace, which makes the film’s comic moments and incidental visual jokes (pictures of Putin and half-naked women on the walls) refreshing. His only mistake was to wait until the film’s closing titles to reveal what’s pretty obvious throughout At the Edge of Russia: that these soldiers have never had to take part in any military operation. They’re on the border of thousands more miles of ice. That note of purposelessness could only have added to the film’s ironies, but Marczak still manages to make an engaging character study of this small group of men, who have nothing to do but stay the course.
For her first film, Cindy Meehl sure managed to secure a compelling subject: Buck Brannaman, the real-life “Horse Whisperer” who inspired the Nicholas Evans novel and the Robert Redford film. Polished and schematically structured, Buck is a natural crowd-pleaser; the women sitting next to me, at least one of whom owned horses, giddily stomped her feet every time there was a shot of a horse side-stepping (which happened a lot)—but the film is tiresomely literal, showing and telling when only showing would suffice.
From the get-go, it’s clear that Buck is the kind of guy anyone would all like to have as a father or teacher. He’s stoic and plainspoken but openhearted, a slow mover with a quick wit. A victim of childhood abuse at the hands of his bitter, hot-tempered father, Buck manages to grow out of his tough youth as an uncommonly gentle soul who now spends nine months of the year giving workshops to teach horse owners how to form a loving bond with their animals. Over and over, Meehl shows examples of calmly and nearly instantly taming animals used to being treated with aggressive discipline rather than an empathy that better suits both horse and owner. Interspersed among these scenes is the story of Buck’s crappy childhood, moving from his early stint as a three-year-old trick-roper to his successful escape from abuse as a teenager.
The inspiration Buck offers is self-evident, but Meehl can’t resist relying on interviews with a broad cast of characters (including fellow trainers, grateful students, and, of course, Robert Redford) to belabor the case for Buck’s greatness. At just 88 minutes, the film is polished but frustratingly redundant. Only one excellent scene, a quiet, taut 10 minutes in which Buck repeatedly attempts to tame a stud so wild its owner is afraid to have anyone approach it, takes the time to convey a message without talking it to death. That said, it’s a pleasure to watch Buck in action, and this is the type of film you ought to take your mother to see.
Friday ended with a screening of Pietro Marcello’s La Bocca del Lupo, an interesting tapestry of historical footage, dramatic recreations, and unlikely love story set in Genoa, Italy. Marcello begins the film in narration by discussing Genoa, and the “transmigrators” who work at the waterfront “on the threshold of our adventures,” segueing into a decidedly unlikely love story, much of it relayed over audio recordings of letters exchanged between two characters (who call each other “bitch” and “bastard”), one of whom we follow around the streets. How Marcello relates these themes I can’t really say; it seems he expects the reverie of his setting (and lovely orchestral score) to be intoxicating, but the first half of his film was so withholding and oblique that I conked out through most of its remainder.
True/False ran from March 3 – 6. For more information, click here.